We’d be remiss if we didn’t attend a Mardi Gras parade during this timely trip through Louisiana. But we actually attended nine parades, so I don’t know what adjective that makes us, but it sure as hell doesn’t make us “remiss.”
Taking an evening drive up from Gulf Shores, we passed through Magnolia Springs — the only U.S. mail route on water. That could have been cool to see, but it was 9pm, so we decided it wasn’t worth waiting for in a town with two restaurants. By the time the sun had come up, we were in Fairhope… and man, what a fascinating place.
It helped that we ran into the first truly engaging strangers (engangers?) of Rogue Trip, seen here beside the coffee shop we were about to enter:
The dude on the left, Dennis, was once a local pizza shop owner. He had insights galore to share, and was ecstatic to hear about our travels and send us off with some positive vibes. Undoubtedly a better way to start the day than with a mere iced latte. Of course, we got the lattes anyway. Gotta stay awake for that dog parade!
Yep, dog parade. What many folks don’t know about Mardi Gras is that it’s celebrated across a wide area of the south, and builds up over the course of several weeks. In fact, New Orleans isn’t even where Mardi Gras started in America. We’ll get to that trivia shortly… for now, pups on parade.
Our whole “Fairhope is fascinating” comment isn’t simply based on the fact that they’ve got well-heeled pooches running through the streets. This is actually an extremely rare American town for three unique reasons.
One: Fairhope is a single tax colony. There are two of those in the entire U.S. (the other being in Delaware.) That means, hypothetically, their residents only pay one tax: a lease on land usage, which means the community itself owns the land. Now, the founders of Fairhope brought this approach over from their settlement in Des Moines, Iowa around 1894… which itself was inspired by the social reform ideas of economist Henry George. Suffice it to say, a bit was lost in translation, and once federal taxes (which didn’t exist back then) kicked in, the concept lost a fair amount of its intended bite. But hey, it does still exist, and that’s commendable in a world where experimentation is no longer popular.
Two: see that last pic? It’s a nod to Marietta Johnson’s Organic School, which has been holding class since 1907. What is organic education? To quote their brochure, it’s a place where children learn “incidentally.” It means you don’t have grades, or homework, or a year when you’re required to learn to read. You learn when you’re ready.
Coffee Shop Dennis told us there are about 40 kids enrolled in it right now, and that the school is constantly on the verge of closing down, and that the whole “learn to read when you’re ready” model results in the children reaching college-level literacy in the same year they open up their first book. Pretty bold claim.. regardless, we’d love to meet someone who went through this education system.
Three: for reasons still not entirely known, and in circumstances still not entirely predictable, there are rare occasions during the summer months in Fairhope (and other areas of Mobile Bay) where many creatures of the bay run out of oxygen and flee to the shoreline for air. This event is known as “Jubilee”, and it momentarily turns everyone into champion fishermen using whatever they’ve got available: their hands, a bucket, maybe even a baseball cap.
The below photo is from the internet. We did not see this happen, and if we had, we’d be too busy selling fish to write this post.
Alright, enough learning. Let’s catch some beads.
Where was the first American celebration of Mardi Gras held? Right here, friend. Mobile, Alabama.
Coffee Shop Dennis From Fairhope (the name just keeps getting longer) gave us a few bonus tips that we cashed in on here: the Battle House Hotel is a famous long-standing facet of Mobile high culture, but what many don’t know is that the second floor contains a whispering arch. Here’s Hailey listening to me test it out from a good fifty feet away. And a quick technical note: if you’re reading this from an email subscription, you’re missing some videos!
Not bad, eh? Dennis also said the lobby acoustics in general are amazing, and promised he would teach us to play piano in five seconds as long as we agreed to go play the piano at this hotel. His instruction consisted of the following: “just play the black keys. You can’t go wrong.” So that’s what Hailey did, as I sat on the first floor.
Mobile’s evening parade was our first real taste of a Mardi Gras vibe — and though we didn’t know it at the time, this parade would be the most prompt of all those we were about to attend, starting a mere 40 minutes after advertised. Thankfully, some dude behind us was consistently entertaining, gracefully tip-toeing on the verge of becoming annoying but never actually doing so. Anyway, look over there! It’sa him, Mario!
We caught some notable items, including a somewhat dirty teddy bear who was missing his right arm:
A glowing plastic ring that said “ISIS” across it in capital letters. Alright.
And of course, enough Moon Pies to feed a family of four or a Mitch of one.
Mobile actually has a Moon Pie apparatus that they raise in celebration every New Year’s Eve. That fact wasn’t at all interesting to Hailey, but to someone like myself who is used to the tradition of the ball dropping in Times Square, this reverence for a consumer product was culture shock of the highest order. Because Times Square isn’t about consumerism at all.
Anyway, we probably caught enough crap to start our own Dollar Tree franchise. Top marks, Mobile.
The following day was a bit more wholesome, as our visit to the Mobile Botanical Gardens and Charles Wood Japanese Garden led to the first turtle-spotting of the trip. I like turtles.
We then took a scenic drive along Mobile Bay and recharged at a neato cafe called Carpe Diem. In a future post, we’ll list a few of the best places we’ve worked from during our travels. Carpe Diem will make the list.
Eventually we were back up and running to the next destination, and I hope none of you have relatives there.
I want to be fair to Biloxi. First off, Hailey and I have thus far gotten our trip tips from two sources: friends/family, and the internet. We’ve yet to wander around aimlessly for more than an hour at a time. So, maybe there’s a lot to Biloxi that hasn’t made it to the worldwide web, and maybe we just don’t know anyone familiar with the area. Then of course, there’s the fact that the Mississippi coast was arguably hurt worse by Hurricane Katrina than Louisiana… this is still a very real thing down here. I’d wager 75% of the lots along Biloxi’s main coastal road were empty and still up for sale. Katrina happened twelve years ago.
Now, all that said: Biloxi was apparently dubbed the “American Riviera” in the early 20th century, and unbelievably, this was before they even had a decent beachfront, which was eventually built artificially. Perhaps standards for getting the word “riviera” attached to one’s name have tightened up since those days, because Buick doesn’t make a Riviera anymore, and Biloxi would have no business calling itself the American Riviera today.
In the photo below, you can see three of the four most recommended “things to do” in Biloxi: the pier, the lighthouse, and the Visitor’s Center. The best thing to do in this city is to walk into a place that talks about how great the city used to be. Just soak that up for a minute.
Biloxi was our first big miss (is that a pun? We’ll take it) of Rogue Trip. We drove around for a while, found nothing, and then hit the Golden Nugget casino where we pretty much twiddled our thumbs for several hours, awaiting the sweet release of bedtime.
Also, we were the only people at the casino’s 4pm all-you-can-eat buffet, which had pictures of crab legs everywhere, and waited until we had paid the entry fee to tell us crab legs are only on certain days of the week. Obviously this is Hailey before finding that out.
Okay, you want some of Biloxi’s good side? I have two things. First, this golden nugget, which the Golden Nugget casino claims is largest on public display in the world. For reference, it’s a little bigger than my head. But probably not bigger than the head of the guy who owns a Golden Nugget casino and buys this thing for a showcase piece.
Second, Keesler Air Force Base is where my dad was once stationed, and out of there fly the hurricane chaser pilots who voluntarily get themselves into situations that are about a hundred times worse than the worst flight you’ve ever been on. Here’s one of ’em being a regular Joe, getting a cup of joe.
Thus ends our spell in the state of Mississippi. We won’t even comment on the fact that we tried to take a scenic coastal road which reached a dead end at the parking lot of a casino. Pedal to the metal, and bonjour Louisiana…
Odie, you’ve made it to the big time! The Big Easy. Thankfully, just a few days before hardcore Mardi Gras hits, giving us a lot of the experience without the crowds and harassment. In fact, the most disturbing thing we saw was probably this uninterrupted group of fifty businessmen walking together, talking business talk. And I don’t mean that things were boring in New Orleans… I mean we saw a lot, and this army of straight-laced dudes in suits was still the weirdest.
Or maybe this was the weirdest. A bar with a barber’s chair in the middle of it and a sign that read, “free shot with purchase of haircut.”
Or maybe this was the weirdest. A guy who couldn’t get out of his $100,000+ BMW because a drifter walked up and stood silently right outside the scissor door, seemingly just to paint an amusing juxtaposition.
And yes, we went to parades. We went to two, or maybe three… I don’t remember. It’s hard to keep track when each parade starts three hours after it’s supposed to.
“Chaos In The Streets?” Definitely, if your brand of chaos is local police being unsure of where to assemble the safety barriers.
Of course, New Orleans compensated for this lax parade with some amazing restaurants, bars, and music. I had the best jambalaya of my life at Coop’s Place, and we both had the best cocktail at a rotating bar of our lives at Hotel Monteleone. It’s basically a carousel with barstools instead of horsies, and takes 14 minutes to go all the way around.
In addition, we went on a ghost tour to save you the trouble of going. Some fun facts:
Voodoo dolls were actually just primitive medical records. The doctor would make a doll up to resemble you, take a pin painted with the color that equates to the kind of treatment he provided, and stick it in the area of your doll where the problem was. The myth around them having witchcraft powers stemmed from French socialites who didn’t know what they were looking at.
This house below was supposedly occupied by a vampire who threw wild parties back in the day. Now it’s occupied by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. You want a joke here about how vampires and Microsoft both suck? I’ll leave that to you. I’m taking the high road on this one.
New Orleans had the first pharmacy in the U.S., and the doctor managing it decided he would test his latest and greatest experimental drugs on the sick and poor, making him a rather successful serial torturer in his day. Oh, but the two-foot-long urethral dialator? That’s not torture. Just good ol’ modern-day medicine.
Another museum worth a visit is the WWII Museum, which is quite large, quite full of planes hanging in the air, and quite wonderfully narrated by Tom Hanks in a 4D movie you can attend while there. We’d definitely recommend the movie. One notable picture here: the actual flight record from August 6th, 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
What else can we tell you about New Orleans? Oh, here’s a somewhat harrowing experience: a museum talking about the plight and racial struggles of the Lower 9th Ward, conveniently located in an everyday house in the middle of the Lower 9th Ward. You should check this out — it paints a very different picture of the Hurricane Katrina experience as it relates to local sociopolitical factors.
Wrap-up for New Orleans: it was great, even as we narrowly escaped the true Mardi Gras crowd by mere hours. We’d love to go back again.
Next on the Mardi Gras trail is Covington, just over the bridge crossing Lake Pontchartrain. Yeah, just hop right over that bridge there… wait, we’re still on the bridge. It’s been 5 miles. 10 miles. 20 miles. What is happening here?!
What happened was we unwittingly crossed the longest continuous water bridge in the world. 24 miles. It’s in Louisiana of all places. So are the U.S.’ second-largest and third-largest bridges. Louisiana, you sly fox!
Eventually, we did indeed cross the pond to find exactly what you would’ve hoped for by making that pun: an English tea room, thoughtfully named The English Tearoom.
“That’s quaint”, you say. They’ve got little Union Jack flags in their sammies and an olde tyme telephone booth in the background. Looks like a more unique version of Applebee’s, perhaps? Well, allow us to blow your minds with a freakin’ harp player providing the lunchtime soundtrack. This place was legit and you’d be a wanker to pass it up.
Also super-cool in Covington was their bike trail, which happened to pass right by one of my favorite breweries: Abita. We sampled more than a few.
Does Covington have a parade? You betcha, and pretty much every kid in Louisiana was in attendance. This procession felt the most like a wholesome American town just getting out for the evening and having some fun, catching some beads, and watching some monster trucks.
In contrast to the uprightness of Covington, I imagined Baton Rouge would be a very, very sad place. And once again, I’m glad I was wrong. BR had easily the most boisterous and positively energetic parade we attended, solidified by the very problems that I’d figured would be weighing them down. Most of the floats were slathered in messages cursing out FEMA, or dissing Red Cross, or mocking Trump. While it was just a snapshot of the community, it was interesting to see how they all banded together.
Also, if there are any football coaches reading our blog: Baton Rouge residents have the best receiving hands in the country. They caught every single thing that flew off those floats, sometimes while looking down at their phones.
Word on the internet was that Lafayette and its outskirt town of Breaux Bridge (Brock Bridge? Bro Bridge? Breaks Bridge?) had some cool experiences to offer, so that was next on our Louisiana hit list.
Of course, we jumped in a boat for a swamp tour. Those of you from Hailey’s side of the fence may not know that I’m terrified of anything I can’t control, such as alligators or strangers steering boats. But, as with many things we do, I’m glad Hailey dragged me into it. We did see gators and I am still here to talk about it.
Fun fact (read: reassuring fact for my mom): swamp and bayou water are typically only about knee-deep. I always imagined falling into one and being drowned in six feet of muck. The water’s actually quite clear due to the plants occupying the bed. Now, actual fun fact: this lake — Lake Martin — has one of the largest bird sanctuaries in the world, and is also one of the largest man-made lakes in America. Again, Louisiana has some serious bragging rights.
Lafayette is also where we crossed paths with our next engaging stranger, Meg. The pleasant fella behind the coffee counter informed her that we were on a cross-country road trip, and she proceeded to dump dozens of Texas travel tips on us. Amazing luck we’ve been having with such fine folks recently! Thanks again to all of you.
Yes, we went to Lafayette’s parades. You don’t still want to see parade photos, do you?
We found Lake Charles in many a write-up about “the best Mardi Gras celebrations outside New Orleans”, and since it was directly in the way of us getting to Texas, we decided that’s where we’d spend Fat Tuesday.
Now, I used to live in Pittsburgh. When I told people that, they’d respond with a mildly disgusted face, imagining what Pittsburgh must be like. Let me tell you this: Lake Charles is the Pittsburgh you’re thinking of. We weren’t fans, to say the least.
When your historic downtown district has one of your highest crime rates, you’re probably doing it wrong. And when there are more birds than people inside the Kmart, you’re definitely doing it wrong. I mean you’re doing it wrong if you even have a Kmart anymore, but let’s not kick Lake Charles when it’s down.
Here’s Hailey coping with the fact that a family of seven decided they’d not only block our entire view of the parade route, but shove their butts in our face while doing so.
Lake Charles did throw a good parade, let’s give ’em that. But the extremely blue-collar, don’t-get-out-much vibe of its residents became palpable once the beads started flying. You’d swear the floats were handing out hundred dollar bills. It wasn’t friendly — it was Black Friday in parade form.
Also, we ended up being part of the parade convoy as it was leaving the town, and one of the float trucks almost side-swiped Odie. I’m sure its occupants would’ve just attached their insurance card to a set of beads and tossed it down to us.
Before we go, let’s recap some parade superlatives to guide future generations:
Most family-friendly: Fairhope
Most generous: Mobile
Most touristy: New Orleans
Most hometowny: Covington/Mandeville
Most unified: Baton Rogue
Most desperate: Lake Charles
Alright, there’s your Rogue Trip update as far west as Louisiana! All the next list lives in Texas. So until then, see ya later alligators…